CALL THEM DROPOUTS UNDERSTANDING THE EXPERIENCES OF YOUNG PEOPLE WHO LEAVE HIGH SCHOOL

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1 DON T CALL THEM DROPOUTS UNDERSTANDING THE EXPERIENCES OF YOUNG PEOPLE WHO LEAVE HIGH SCHOOL BEFORE GRADUATION A Report from America s Promise Alliance and its Center for Promise at Tufts University

2 TABLE OF CONTENTS Letter from John Gomperts, President and CEO, America s Promise Alliance A Message from Laysha Ward, President, Community Relations, Target Acknowledgements Foreword from John Bridgeland, CEO, Civic Enterprises Executive Summary Methodology Themes and Findings Introduction Overview Finding One: Multiple Factors Lead to Leaving School Reflections on the Findings by Craig McClay Finding Two: Nongraduates Are Growing Up in Toxic Environments Close the Opportunity Gap by Prudence L. Carter Finding Three: Connections Matter Finding Four: Nongraduates Bounce Back, and Need More Support to Reach Up Realizing the Potential of Opportunity Youth by Paul Luna Conclusions Recommendations Appendix and Tables Appendix I: Methodology Appendix II: Partner Program Descriptions Appendix III: Community Partner Descriptions Appendix IV: Tables Copyright 2014, America s Promise Alliance. All rights reserved. 2

3 TIME TO LISTEN Let me begin with a simple request for readers of this report. Please set aside your preconceptions and assumptions about young people who don t finish high school. Fight the instinct to reach for quick solutions. Just listen hard and try to understand their experience and perspective. Young people who don t finish high school have few avenues for sharing their stories with adults, school professionals, community leaders, and policymakers. The goal of this report is to change that to raise up the voices of young people who have not graduated from high school so that we all gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and choices they face. With enthusiastic support from our partners at Target, the research team at our Center for Promise set out to discover what young people say about the experiences that lead them away from high school. By conducting interviews with more than 200 young people and surveying several thousand more, we listened deeply to what leads to leaving school before graduation. Throughout the process, our goal remained the same to hear what young people say about their lives and decisions. Readers of this report know the challenge our nation faces now: Approximately 20 percent of young people about 800,000 per year don t graduate from high school. We at America s Promise and our Alliance of partners and communities are dedicated to reducing that number dramatically. Together with the President and the Secretary of Education, we ve set a goal of raising the graduation rate from its current 80 percent to 90 percent by All of us individuals, organizations, communities share the responsibility and opportunity for creating the conditions under which all young people have a real chance to thrive. We make choices every day that can ease the path young people walk or make that path more difficult. These decisions should be informed by the voices and realities of the teens we want to support. We can t help them meet their own goals if we don t understand the lives they lead, the challenges they face and the perspectives they bring. One small and important way for us to start changing course is captured in the title of this report. Let s grant the wish expressed in several of the group interviews to stop calling this group of young people dropouts. Let s leave behind the loser and quitter undertones that word conveys. And then let s get to work helping to build a future in which all young people can flourish and thrive. John Gomperts President and CEO, America's Promise Alliance Join the conversation and read the whole report at GradNation.org/NotDropouts and on Twitter using #notdropouts. 3

4 A MESSAGE FROM TARGET The eduation achievement gap or opportunity gap, as many have suggested is not made up of statistics, it is made up of people; students children with hopes and dreams and challenges all their own. To paint them with a broad brush is to marginalize them. To render them merely as numbers is to refuse to see their faces, or hear their voices, or honor their stories. In this compelling new report, Don t Call Them Dropouts, America s Promise Alliance gives voice to the young people behind the numbers. These are the students who ve left school behind for reasons that are often as reasonable as they are devastating. And they are coming back, or trying to, because these students have one thing in common: the desire to create better lives than the ones they have been given. We are proud to sponsor this report. At Target, we have always believed that meaningful, lasting solutions begin with listening. Empathy is at the heart of all great, human-centered design. This is the approach we take to designing experiences for our guests, and to making investments in our communities. Our commitment to education is built on a simple belief: that every child deserves a quality education regardless of race or socioeconomic status. It s why we ve committed $1 billion to the cause; an investment we ll reach by the end of It s why we give 5% of our profit that s more than $4 million every week and more than a million volunteer hours in 2013 from our team members nationwide. It s why we use our strengths as a national retailer to foster public/private partnerships, convene cross-sector leaders, and raise awareness of education. And it s why we support strong, action-oriented partners like America s Promise Alliance. We also believe nothing is more important to the future of our children, communities and country than education. It is the key to moving young people out of poverty and into economic opportunity. It ensures they ll have the knowledge and skills to compete in a 21st century global economy. And it s critical to ensuring that we have a skilled workforce and leaders for the future. There s good news to celebrate. Graduation rates are on the rise. Every year, fewer children are leaving school before graduation. But too many still do. And to read their stories is to understand in a whole new way just how much work remains. We still have cross-sector partnerships to build, solutions to design, and young people to engage. This report is a good place to start. If we are to help our children in the gap, we must first understand them. Their future and, indeed, our own future depend on it. Respectfully, Laysha Ward President, Community Relations Target 4

5 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The Center for Promise at America s Promise Alliance could not have completed this study without our partners, including a group of community-based organizations throughout the country, national leaders on the issues that impact young people, and the young people who agreed to be interviewed and surveyed. Their generous contributions of time and talent shaped Don t Call Them Dropouts from beginning to end. The Center for Promise team that worked on this study is comprised of: Jonathan F. Zaff, Ph.D., Executive Director Ana Carvalho, Graduate Research Assistant Elizabeth Pufall Jones, Ph.D., Research Scientist Steven Otto, Graduate Research Assistant Sara E. Anderson, Ph.D., Post-Doctoral Research Associate Jen Elise Prescott, Doctoral Research Assistant Craig McClay, Lead Group Interview Facilitator and Amber Rose Johnson, Research Assistant Qualitative Analyst Melissa Maharaj, Group Interview Facilitator and Qualitative Analyst The voices of the young people who participated in the group interviews and the survey are the foundation for this report. Although we are not able to acknowledge each young person individually, we are humbled by the ways they shared with us intimate details of their lives; and by their daily struggles, strength, and courage. We are grateful to Stefan Hankin and Bennett Lipscomb from Lincoln Park Strategies for capturing the voices of these young people through our survey. Our community partners graciously gave of their time and effort to recruit young people for the group interviews: Brotherhood, Inc., St. Paul, MN Ujamaa Place, St. Paul, MN Center for Teen Empowerment, Boston, MA United Teen Equality Center, Lowell, MA E3 Centers (program of the Philadelphia Youth United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, Network), Philadelphia, PA Tucson, AZ Gateway to College, Minneapolis, MN Y-Build, Nashville, TN Gateway to College, Portland, OR YouthBuild, Boston Gateway to College, Riverside, OR YouthBuild, Providence Homeboy Industries, Los Angeles, CA Youth Opportunity (YO!), Baltimore, MD Houston Independent School District, Twilight High Youth United for Change, Philadelphia, PA School, Houston, TX Zone 126, Astoria, NY Learning Works Charter School, Pasadena, CA Magic Johnson Accelerated Achievement Academy (part of Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy Network), Cincinnati, OH In particular, we d like to thank the community leaders and their teams at each of the partner organizations: Christa Anders, Pam Blumenthal, Gamal Brown, Gregg Croteau, Lea Dahl, Monica De La Rosa, Ernest Dorsey, Stephanie Gambone, Anthony Hubbard, Anthony Johnson, Amanda Kucich, Jill Marks, Mikala Rahn, and Anju Rupchandani. We are also grateful for the thoughtful insights and help from national and local practitioners, advocates, and scholars, including: Mary Ellen Ardouny, President & CEO, The Corps Network Nick Mathern, Vice President, Policy & Partnership John Bridgeland, President & CEO, Civic Enterprises Planning, Gateway to College National Network Thaddeus Ferber, Vice President, Policy Advocacy, Joel Miranda, Director of Leadership Development, Forum for Youth Investment YouthBuild USA Della Hughes, Senior Fellow at the Center for Youth Kristin Anderson Moore, Senior Scholar, Child Trends and Communities of the Heller School for Social Mikala Rahn, President, Public Works, LLC Policy and Management at Brandeis University Dorothy Stoneman, Founder and CEO, YouthBuild USA Finally, this report would not be so powerful without its lead writer, Michelle Hynes. She translated complex quantitative and qualitative methodologies and findings into a compelling narrative that is true to the voices of the young people we interviewed and surveyed. America s Promise Alliance gratefully acknowledges the generous support of Target for this study and its dissemination. 5

6 FOREWORD There is power in listening. Almost a decade ago, we discovered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that notwithstanding years of research on the high school dropout problem, no one had ever talked with the customers of American education the non-graduates themselves. When we listened to their perspectives in focus groups and a national survey in 25 cities, suburbs and rural areas across the United States, a powerful story started to emerge, one we captured in 2006 in The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Like other students, those who left school without diplomas had big dreams for their futures, wanted adults to have higher expectations for them, saw the importance of high school and college to their careers, and were confident they could have graduated. Yet, many saw little connection between what happened in the classroom and what they wanted to be in life. Often, attendance patterns were a clear and early warning sign, academic challenges grew, school seemed to be irrelevant to their career dreams, and the weight of real world events pulled them away. In hindsight, with jobs to find and families to raise, the vast majority said that leaving high school was one of the worst decisions of their lives. For a variety of reasons, this problem was hidden from the American people or thought to be chronically unfixable. The Silent Epidemic told us more about who these young people were, why they dropped out of high school, and what steps could help others graduate and go on to college. We learned that the dropout epidemic is fixable and young people point the way forward. While these students took responsibility for their own decisions, they longed for: stronger connections between school and work; improved and more engaging instruction; access to supports they needed; a safe and welcoming school climate that fostered learning; a strong relationship with at least one adult in the school; and improved communication between parents and schools before it was too late. These findings were crucial blocks on which to build better supports for students. A decade later, America s Promise Alliance and Tufts University come roaring forward with a groundbreaking report that goes deeper with these young people. While it illuminates the family, social, and financial pressures that may cause a young person to stop school, this study also emphasizes the resilience and determination shared by these dropouts as they work to overcome extraordinarily difficult life circumstances. Their persistence in the face of many setbacks should encourage us that, if we continue to listen to their voices and work to put the right supports in place, we can help even more young people stay in school and on track to a successful future and help those who have left school return to graduate. Our nation is making important progress in reaching the GradNation goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate nationwide by the Class of This is a goal that previous Presidents have set and missed. But our nation must not miss it this time. So let s listen to the perspectives, stories and insights shared in this new report and continue to galvanize a nation to respond. The futures of so many young people depend upon it. John M. Bridgeland CEO, Civic Enterprises 6

7 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Don t Call Them Dropouts adds to the large and growing body of research about why some young people fail to complete high school on the traditional four-year timeline. While a high school diploma is only a starting line for adult success, it has become increasingly clear that it is crucial for taking the next steps in college and career. Over the past decade, there has been impressive growth in and commitment to helping more students graduate. What has been missing from much of the recent research, however, is a vibrant portrait of young people s experiences, gathered in a way that deepens the national conversation about why some young people are still failing to graduate. Building on studies like Bridgeland, Dilulio, and Morison s Silent Epidemic 1, as well as the Building a GradNation reports and the work of The Aspen Institute s Opportunity Youth Network, this report from The Center for Promise (a partnership between America s Promise Alliance and Tufts University) begins to fill that gap. The Center s research team gathered the stories of more than 200 young people through 30 facilitated group interviews in 16 high-poverty, geographically distributed urban communities across the country. In addition, nearly 3,000 more young people drawn from all 50 states responded to a survey; about two-thirds of those respondents had stopped attending school for at least a semester, while the remainder had finished high school uninterrupted. A group of partner organizations, described in Appendix II, assisted with recruiting participants for both qualitative and quantitative data collection. Our research was designed to answer questions like: What do young people say about why they leave high school before graduating? What circumstances surrounded the decision to leave? What were students lives like when they left school, and what effects has that decision had on them and on their families? Why do young people say they came back to school? What opportunities do young people have to re-engage after leaving school, and what barriers do they encounter along the way? As we talked with young people, many of whom had already re-entered high school completion programs, we learned that they do not want to be called dropouts. Further, because the majority of survey respondents had already returned to school, we avoid using traditional language about dropping out in this report. Instead, we refer to the interview participants as nongraduates, and their decision to interrupt their high school education as leaving school. We refer to the two survey populations as continuousenrollment and interrupted-enrollment Clusters of Factors 03 Yearning for Connectedness FOUR Findings 02 Environments are Toxic 04 Resilience in Need of Support Analyzing the qualitative and quantitative data led us to four primary findings: 1. Both disengaging from and re-engaging with school result from clusters of factors. 2. Young people who stop going to school are likely to be navigating home, school, or neighborhood environments that they experience as toxic Connectedness to others is a high priority for young 1 Bridgeland, J. M., Dilulio, J.J. & Morison, K. B. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Civic Enterprises. See also Bridgeland, J. M., Milano, J. A. (2012). Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America s forgotten youth. Civic Enterprises and America s Promise Alliance. 2 We refer to the two survey populations as interrupted-enrollment and continuous-enrollment throughout the document, to emphasize the point that dropout does not accurately describe the young people who left school and subsequently re-engaged in secondary education. See the tables in Appendix III for demographic information. 3 That is, young people described themselves as survivors of violence, exposed to violence, affected by adverse health events in their families, or subject to school climates and policies that are unsafe, unsupportive or disrespectful. 7

8 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY There are statistically significant differences between the interruptedenrollment and continuously-enrolled survey respondents with respect to life circumstances. people. The value placed on these relationships can lead young people away from or toward school, depending on other circumstances. 4. Young people who interrupted their high school education often bounced back from difficult circumstances, but individual resilience was insufficient to re-engage with school. Longer-term positive development, what we call reaching up, required additional support. While the four primary findings may not surprise readers who are familiar with American high schools, some unexpected emphases and themes emerged from our analyses of the data. For example, family members health led young people into caregiving roles that pulled them out of school. Young people persistently pursued human connections even if that quest led them into unhealthy intimate relationships, destructive behavior, or gang membership. While nongraduates took responsibility for the choices they made, they also shared insights about the impact of their unrelenting struggles, and they criticized adults who didn t listen to their larger stories as well as the school policies that impeded their efforts to stay engaged in school. The stories we heard in interviews demonstrated that these young people were reaching up toward a more sustainable future, whether that meant returning to complete high school, finding ways to support their families, seeking opportunities to be better role models for their own children, or giving back to their communities. The nongraduates we interviewed 4 were primarily re-engaging in education and work through organizations focused on helping young people who have interrupted their high school education, and who live in high-poverty or other distressed circumstances. Survey findings, based on data drawn from all 50 states, called attention to specific strengths that nongraduates brought to their struggles. More than three-quarters of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that what they d learned in the past would help them in the future; nearly three-quarters said they have a five-year plan; and 84 percent said they don t give up on problems. Finally, while we found that an accumulation of risk factors (as opposed to any one factor alone) is what leads to leaving high school, several survey findings suggest that school personnel, community leaders, and other helping professionals should pay extra attention to students who move from home to home or from school to school, particularly when also affected by foster care; have a parent in jail; or become homeless. There are statistically significant differences between the interrupted-enrollment and continuously-enrolled survey respondents with respect to these life circumstances. More specifically, we found that: enrollment respondents reported high levels of residential and school instability, with almost 50% moving homes and 50% changing schools during high school (compared with 30% of continuously-enrolled respondents moving and 26% changing schools); 4 See the appendices for the demographics of the young people from the 30 group interviews. 8

9 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Interrupted Risk Factors Reported by Respondents 87% = Homelessness 79% = Incarcerated Parent 50% = Moving Homes 50% = Changing Schools 11% = Foster Care enrollment survey respondents reported being in foster care at a much higher rate (11%) than continuously-enrolled graduates (2%); A young person who experienced homelessness was 87% more likely to stop going to school; and Having an incarcerated parent was associated with a 79% higher likelihood of interrupting school enrollment. Giving extra support to students in these circumstances could build on their strengths in ways that help them stay in or return to school. Hearing similar narratives over and over in sixteen different urban communities and digging into complementary survey data convinced us that listening to what young people say about their own experiences is, in itself, an important action for adults to take. Without denying the harm that some of these young people have done through violence, gangs, and drugs, we invite readers of this report to also see the resilient, determined, and hopeful community members our team met in the summer of The stories and the statistics provide important clues to how we can learn more from, and be more supportive of, the diverse groups of young people who are leaving our nation s high schools. We strongly urge greater inclusion of young people s perspectives into future policymaking, policy applications, and practical community-based interventions. Our research confirms that how each of us sees these young people, how we talk to them, and what we expect from them matters very much. All of us at America s Promise Alliance look forward to the ways that raising up young people s voices and listening to what they say can add new dimensions to our nation s conversation about raising the graduation rate. 9

10 METHODOLOGY The study utilized an exploratory sequential mixed-methods design. 5 Mixed-methods designs recognize that not all research questions can be answered using a single formulation of data. An exploratory design is most applicable where not enough is known about a given phenomenon to develop theories or hypotheses with confidence (e.g., what is the lived experience of youth who have stopped going to school?). In an exploratory sequential design, the qualitative component of the study is conducted first and facilitates the conceptualization of the quantitative component s design and analysis. In this study, designing, conducting, and analyzing facilitated group interviews preceded developing, implementing, and analyzing a survey. Organizing data collection in this way allowed the focus of the analysis to remain on young people s voices, with the quantitative data and analysis elaborating on and extending these voices. From June through September 2013, the Center for Promise team conducted 30 facilitated group interviews in 16 communities across the United States. The interview method drew upon an interactive facilitation methodology developed by Teen Empowerment, 6 an organization founded in 1992 that focuses on raising the voices of youth and young adults in a community in order to effect social change. The survey was developed in the summer of 2013 based on input from the interview facilitators and the Center for Promise qualitative researchers; existing literature on the reasons young people leave high school; and prior surveys of similar populations of young people. The final survey consisted of 58 questions related to youth demographics; the background of the respondents parents; relationships with parents, peers, teachers, and others in their communities; individual strengths; experiences in school and other areas of their lives and young people s reported reasons for dropping out. Survey participants were recruited via and phone, and through the efforts of national organizations with community affiliates that partner with America s Promise. Potential participants were invited to complete the survey if they were between the ages of 18 and 25. The survey was broadly distributed through by a survey research firm, Lincoln Park Strategies, in Spanish and English. In the end, 1,936 qualified individuals who had left high school for at least a semester completed the survey; these respondents constitute the final interrupted-enrollment sample. 7 In addition, 1,023 young adults who graduated high school in four years (continuous-enrollment) were recruited via the same sampling methodology in order to provide a comparison group. Although participants in the interrupted-enrollment survey are not a nationally representative sample, their demographic characteristics mirror that of the U.S. as a whole and when broken down by state. There is one exception: a smaller proportion of White participants were found in the interrupted-enrollment survey compared with the proportions within each state. When reading the findings, it is important to note that the interview participants and the survey respondents are drawn from different populations. The more than 200 young people who participated in the 30 facilitated group interviews live in urban communities and are connected in some way to organizations that re-engage young people who have left high school. The nearly 3,000 survey respondents come from all 50 states and represent a more geographically and economically diverse group. For a full description of the qualitative and quantitative approaches, please visit GradNation.org/NotDropouts. 5 Creswell, J. W., & Clark, V. L. (2007). Designing and conducting mixed methods research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications. 6 See the Teen Empowerment website for more information on the organization (http://www.teenempowerment.org); and the Moving Beyond Icebreakers website for more information about the facilitating techniques used (http://www.movingbeyondicebreakers.org). 7 We chose not to call the survey samples dropouts and graduates because many of the students who stopped going to school for a semester or more had 10 re-enrolled by the time they completed the survey. See the tables in Appendix III for demographic information.

11 THEMES AND FINDINGS INTRODUCTION Colleagues like Robert Balfanz, John Bridgeland, Ruth Nield, and Russell Rumberger 8 who study youth development and young people s engagement with school have built an enormous body of evidence that has shaped research, policy, and practice over the last decade. The latest research and theory make clear that young people are not born dropouts or graduates, nor does a young person s environment dictate his or her destiny. Rather, disengaging from school is a result of the dynamic relationship among individual characteristics (e.g. race, gender, income); known risk factors (e.g. failing courses, low attendance, behavior problems, or being overage for a particular grade); 9 and context (e.g. school climate; the interest teachers take in students; relationships with adults in the community; or the poverty level of the community surrounding the school). 10 Furthermore, a growing body of empirical evidence shows that disconnection from school is a long-term process, not a sudden event. 11 Recent research has also focused on the size and scope of the graduation rate challenge in the United States leading many to call the rate at which young people leave school before earning a diploma a dropout crisis. 12 Approximately one-fifth of young people who begin 9th grade do not complete high school on time, if ever. 13 Of even greater concern are the statistics for urban youth and for members of specific minority groups. In many large urban areas, on-time graduation rates average 50% or less, with African American, Native American, and Hispanic youth showing the lowest rates. These results create enormous costs for individuals and for society. Young people who do not complete high school are more likely to become unemployed, homeless, pregnant, become parents, or become involved in the juvenile justice or criminal justice system. While nongraduates may also experience some of these negative life events during their high school years, the lack of a diploma often closes doors to gainful employment and keeps them in environments that do not support longer-term academic and vocational achievement. Their contributions to the nation s economic and social growth economically and socially are far more limited than they could be. The findings support looking closely at the structural and contextual factors that affect dropping out. In addition, the findings this report highlights point us toward new ways of looking at existing policies and practices that can help young people re-engage with school. Approximately one-fifth of young people who begin 9th grade do not complete high school on time, if ever. Nongraduates create enormous costs for individuals and for society. 8 Balfanz, R., & Letgers, N. (2004). Locating the dropout crisis: Which high schools produce the nation s dropouts? Where are they located? Who attends them? Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University. Bridgeland, J. M., Dilulio, J.J. & Morison, K. B. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Retrieved from Nield, R.C. (2009). Falling off track during the transition to high school: what we know and what can be done. Future Child, 19(1): Rumberger, R.W. (2004). Why students drop out of school. In Orfield, G. (Ed.), Dropout in America: Confronting the graduation rate crisis (pp ). Cambridge, MA. Harvard Education Press. 9 Hammond, C., Smink, J., Drew, S. (2007). Dropout risk factors and exemplary programs: A technical report. National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University and Communities in Schools, Inc. 10 Rumberger, R., Lim, S. A. (2008). Why students drop out of school: A review of 25 years of research. California Dropout Research Project. UC Santa Barbara. 11 Neild, R.C. & Balfanz, R. (2006). Unfulfilled promise: The dimensions and characteristics of Philadelphia s dropout crisis, Philadelphia Youth Network. John Hopkins University and University of Pennsylvania. Nield, R.C., Balfanz, R., Herzog, L. (2007) An early warning system. Washington, DC: ASCD. 12 Swanson, C. B. (2009). Cities in crisis: Closing the graduation gap. Washington, DC: America s Promise Alliance. 13 Balfanz, R., Bridgeland, J. M., Bruce, M., Fox, J.H. (2013). Building a GradNation: Progress and challenge in ending the high school dropout epidemic. Washington, DC: America s Promise Alliance. 11

12 THEMES AND FINDINGS OVERVIEW OVERVIEW In June 2013, our team began traveling across the country to investigate these initial questions: What do young people say about why they leave high school before graduating? What circumstances surrounded the decision to leave? What were students lives like when they left school, and what effects has that decision had on them and on their families? Why do young people say they come back to school? What opportunities do young people have to re-engage after leaving school, and what barriers do they encounter along the way? Listening to the voices of more than 200 young people in sixteen different places gave the research team a vibrant picture of their experiences. Themes that began emerging from the facilitated group interviews informed the questions we developed for our broader survey. The subsequent responses from nearly 3,000 young people across all 50 states 14 allowed us to get a broader view of which young people are leaving school, why they say they are leaving, and what encourages them to return. Through systematic analysis of the interviews and surveys, we found that: Disengagement from and re-engagement with school both result from clusters of factors. There is no single reason or factor that drives students to leave school, nor is there a uniform profile of students who fail to graduate on time. Young people who leave high school are likely to be growing up in home, school, or community environments we characterize as toxic. 15 Connectedness to others is both a risk factor and a protective factor for disengaging from school. Young people seek and prioritize connections with adults (parents, teachers, other family or community members); peers; and/or younger family members (a child, a sibling). The value placed on these relationships can lead young people toward or away from school, depending on other circumstances. Persistent resilience ( bouncing back ) was evident among nongraduates. Our data suggest that this resilience is a necessary quality for coping from day to day and for re-engagement, but insufficient by itself for longer-term positive development (what we call reaching up ). While we treat the four findings separately starting on page 13, they are inextricably related to one another. Within and across each of these findings, we discuss specific themes that appeared frequently in the group interviews across multiple communities, as shown in Section 2 of the tables in Appendix III. While some of these themes fit easily into a single finding, several span two or more of the four primary areas. Cross-cutting themes include the effect of adverse health events on school completion, the impact of violence on young people s mental health, the influence of specific parent characteristics on youth well-being, and whether young people perceived school as responsive and relevant to their day-to-day concerns. 14 As we explain in the methodology, although survey participants are not a nationally representative sample, their demographic characteristics mirror that of the U.S. as a 12 whole and when broken down by state. 15 All quotes are from a single individual, referred to by an alias. To protect the young people s identities, the quotes are not associated with the cities or the programs where interviews took place. A list of the cities and programs associated with the group interviews is included in the Appendices.

13 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDING 1 Nongraduates described their experiences of multiple, prevalent stressors such as witnessing or being victimized by violence, living in unsafe neighborhoods, experiencing unstable home lives or homelessness, taking responsibility for earning money to meet basic needs (including relying on illegal sources of income), or becoming caregivers for parents or siblings at a young age. In the midst of these circumstances, the young people we interviewed are seeking and creating connectedness wherever they can find it. As their stories illustrate, this may mean choosing family caregiving, gang affiliation, or teen parenting over school attendance. Importantly, seeking connectedness led both to disengagement and reengagement with school; survey findings in particular suggest that being connected to others is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for staying engaged in school. Finally, we heard a clear and powerful theme about persistence and resilience. The nongraduates we talked to consistently bounced back and coped with the stressors in their environments. However, in order to thrive to reach up to a place where longer-term investment in the future was possible a significant change in circumstances was necessary. Young people needed connections with adults and peers who cared about them, people who provided support and guidance, and access to relevant educational programs and social services. That is, a pathway to re-engagement depends on young person s individual strengths and perseverance meeting with social connection and institutional support. FINDING 1. Disengagement and re-engagement both result from clusters of factors. I was fifteen about to turn sixteen; I was in the tenth grade. I was smoking weed, growing weed. I lived in the country my whole life I lived in this little tiny town of 200 people. You know, like, the only thing to do was ride dirt bikes and smoke bud. And my mom ended up coming down with HPV and ovarian cancer; that was the first thing. And the second thing was three months later, my mom had degenerative disc disease, she had to get a gastric bypass for it. Well, my mom s laid up in bed, can t pay the bills. And I turned sixteen and I started roofing [working construction]. Well, eventually weed and everything played into it so much that I seen so much money in my hands that when I went to school it seemed to be a waste of time. You know, I would rather have been on the roof or out hustling making money to pay the bills for my mom cause she s laid up in bed and can t do shit. And my dad never been there; my dad s been in prison since I was ten doing fifteen years in federal, and he actually gets out in three, no he gets out in two years. I eventually dropped out just cause the bills weren t getting paid and I knew I could pay the bills, step up. I never took on responsibility like that before in my life. Aaron 16 Explaining why young people leave high school is at once quite simple and overwhelmingly complex. A single word relationships provides a true and accurate response. Yet the relationships that surround young people who stop going to school are hardly simple. The story above illustrates the interplay among incarcerated or incapacitated parents, a community that offers few options for legal work or productive recreation, and a sense of responsibility for family. School, in this context, simply felt like a waste of time. While Aaron can name precipitating events that led to leaving school, only the totality of circumstances explains how a sixteen-year-old ended up working construction and selling drugs rather than attending his high school classes. 16 All quotes are from a single individual, referred to by an alias. To protect the young people s identities, the quotes are not associated with the cities or the programs where interviews took place. A list of the cities and programs associated with the group interviews is included in Appendix II. 13

14 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDING 1 No group of survey respondents demonstrated involvement with delinquent behaviors (e.g. drug use or gang involvement) without also experiencing an unstable environment, death of a person close to them, or abuse. Aaron s story, unfortunately, is not an isolated one. Across all sixteen interview communities, the research team heard story after story that suggested that a confluence of factors and life experiences can work together against young people s chances of graduating high school. In fact, there were twenty-five different factors that group interview participants mentioned five or more times, and that were mentioned in ten or more cities. (See Section 3 of the tables in Appendix III.) Survey findings emphasize the clustering effect that appears as a theme in the group interviews. For example, survey analysis shows that no group of respondents demonstrated delinquent behaviors (e.g. drug use or gang involvement) without also experiencing an unstable environment, the death of a person close to them, or abuse. 17 Young people who stopped going to school also did not disengage from school exclusively because of antisocial behavior. These findings suggest that nongraduates experienced multiple life challenges that influenced their choices. Taken together with the qualitative findings, we see, for example, that some students weighed whether to stay in school or make money to support their families. Our findings are consistent with other existing research on risk factors for dropping out. 18 Another participant described the underlying causes of dropping out this way: Pain, hurt, being abused, being raped just a lot of things like seeing my homeboy stabbed to death, multiple deaths, having a cousin that was murdered when I was five, just a lot of things. I started hanging around with the wrong people, gang members getting into crap like just a lot of stuff. And I don t want my kids to grow up thinking that it is okay to be doing all that. Sara This participant s story emphasizes that a lot of things led to a decision about leaving school. Witnessing the violent death of a friend, losing a family member at a young age, experiencing rape and other abuse, and subsequently getting involved with the wrong people all added up to a world in which school wasn t a priority. The participant ends, though, with a resolution to be a different kind of role model: I don t want my kids to grow up thinking that it is okay to be doing all that. In just a few sentences, Sara encapsulates a number of themes we heard in group interviews across the country. While interview participants in 13 out of 16 cities mention gangs, and 11% of survey respondents report involvement with a gang, additional survey analysis found that this factor alone did not have a direct link to dropping out; and only 3.5% of survey respondents cite it as one of their reasons for dropping out. This is not to say that belonging to a gang did not have detrimental effects. Instead, as one of the quotes above suggests, joining a gang may have been a negative outcome of failing to find productive connections with adults and peers in a young person s families, schools, or their broader communities. According to survey analyses, being a gang member, using drugs, or being abused also did not preclude re-engagement with school, perhaps because of related positive experiences that predict re-engagement such as participating in youth activities or having a sense of learning from past experiences. The majority of young people with whom we spoke indicated that at the point they left school, they were trying, trying, trying, but when exposed to so many risk factors, I came to my breaking point. 19 At some point in the lives of these young people, something had to give. They were trying, but they were trying, in most cases, alone. Similarly, returning to school results from both positive and negative personal experiences that together produce a turning point. Therefore, in order to create a sustainable shift that enables young people to thrive, changes are necessary across the contexts in which these young people live. This includes their connections to parents, peers, and professionals; to stable places, including housing; and to school policies that make sense for their lives. We explore this point further in the Connectedness and Conclusions sections of the report Latent class analysis (LCA) was used to examine clusters or profiles of interrupted-enrollment participants. See McCutcheon, A. L. (1987). Latent class analysis. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications. 18 For example, see Rumberger, R., Lim, S. A., (2008). Why students drop out of school: A review of 25 years of research. California Dropout Research Project. UC Santa Barbara. 19 From Marty. 20 Balfanz, R., Bridgeland, J. M., Bruce, M., Fox, J.H. (2013). Building a Grad Nation: Progress and challenge in ending the high school dropout epidemic. Washington, DC: America s Promise Alliance. 14

15 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDINGS 1 REFLECTIONS ON THE FINDINGS By Craig McClay, Program Coordinator, The Center for Teen Empowerment I am so grateful to all the focus group participants for allowing us the opportunity to hear their very personal and private stories. The sheer level of trust and intimacy that we developed in two hours enabled us to look beneath the surface to examine their lives. Their stories were filled with tensions between their learned strengths and weaknesses, their common threats and opportunities and most importantly their challenges and their triumphs. On the one hand, their stories revealed a downright ugly underbelly of our society and the experiences of these young people. Tales of physical, emotional, psychological abuse were shared; things that should not happen to people ever, let alone in the 21 st century. On the other hand, the focus group participants stories inspired. Either way, the real tragedy is that these stories are usually not heard or listened to. Further, not enough of us are effectively intervening or acting toward changing the circumstances that push or pull young people out of school and down riskier pathways, just to meet their individual and family needs. It s as if they re living on Neptune. Their realities could not be any further from our own. That may be the reason they go to extraordinary measures to hide the uglier side of their lives. However, once the facts get uncovered we must respond appropriately. As we heard these incredible stories from the focus group participants many questions came to mind, some of which we asked immediately. Sometimes we d ask, Why didn t you contact somebody who could possibly help? The refrain became, We did and that only made things worse, or, I did and they didn t do anything. Not only are these young people facing serious obstacles, but when they try to connect they often find themselves worse off than they were to begin with. Some of our institutions are not meeting their needs and sometimes create even greater impediments in the lives of these young people. There are, however, many institutions that are very helpful and that is where we found hope. Hope is in the voices of these young people. It s time we scale the walls that separate us, and authentically connect with young people. The calls and cries are numerous and they vary. We hear them in terms of economics or the number of students whose attendance is interrupted or the unemployment and crime rates. All of those things are important indicators, but what lies beneath is the stuff we must better understand. What can we really understand from our perspective? We can get a rudimentary picture but the masterpiece is what we need to see. The voices of those indicators make up the tape tries that come together to complete the masterpiece. I d like to invite you to become a masterpiece creator and an ambassador for young people. I invite you to not make assumptions about what young people need or want and to engage, connect to, play with, communicate with, adapt with and empower young people. Work with us to solve the ailments of our compromised society. In addition, we must understand that our young people won t use terms taught in psychology and sociology courses. They will, however, speak a truth from a perspective we need to engage and include to better address the concerns and challenges they face and the skills and talents they bring to this work. Finally, I learned another thing from sitting in these focus groups, which I think is important to this whole movement/ campaign. I learned of the power of humility. In one respect, the young people who sat in those groups with us gave and received unconditional support to and from their peers. 15

16 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDINGS 1 Some of the most endearing moments happened when while sharing individual stories participants would soothe one another with gentle words of wisdom, provide tissues for tears, share resources and offer shoulders to lean on. Because each of them had been through hard times or made mistakes in their lives, they could better empathize with each other and recognize each other s humanity. They re-asserted the human dimensions of dignity and connectedness that had been denied them. There is no doubt that addressing the problems illustrated in these stories is a major endeavor. Tackling these issues will be the difference between America sinking or floating in the 21st century global economy. Our success will take all hands on deck to put all oars in the water then commence rowing in the same direction. It can be done. We see this principle in action in so many highly successful businesses in the 21st century for all types of products and services. Can it work to increase our national high school graduation rate? I think so, if we can re-establish the you in education. Once we make our number one national goal improving life outcomes for members of our society who get shorted as a result of unfair disparities associated with class, we will build a graduation nation. 16

17 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDINGS 2 FINDING 2. Young people who leave high school are often navigating toxic environments. Their daddy [the father of two of her three children] is childish always criticizing me and he try to come in and ruin us [she, her three children, and her boyfriend]. I done went through a lot of stuff with this man and he done shot at my car, he done shot at us, he done everything. and when you go to the police they don t do nothing they ll do something like when you get killed. Lucinda [L]ike I said, my father used to beat on me. Never had my mom in my life; she was always on drugs. It was just me growing up watching over my little brothers while she was out in the street doing her thing. So me and my other brothers grew up too quick, took responsibility, we just... it was too late to go back to school, there was nothing much else for us to do. Thomas The 200+ participants in the group interview sample and to a lesser extent the respondents in the interruptedenrollment survey sample, described growing up in toxic environments. The stories we heard from interview participants highlight three pervasive elements of this toxicity: exposure to, or being a survivor of, violence at home, at school, or in their neighborhoods; personal and family health traumas; and school climates and policies that are unsafe, unsupportive or disrespectful. Across all 16 cities, interview participants recounted experiences of being physically, emotionally, and sexually abused, bullied in school, and witnessing violence in their neighborhoods, schools and homes. In addition, as Thomas describes, in most communities 21 we also heard stories of parental absence or neglect whether because of incarceration, drug use, or simply working multiple jobs to pay the bills. Young people who had absent or abusive parents were often forced not only into self-reliance, but also into caregiving for others in their families. In Thomas s words, they grew up too quick. Survey respondents identified an array of toxic experiences or environments in their lives that reinforce the frequent mentions in the group interviews. A large number of interrupted-enrollment respondents also reported being abused (30%), homeless (22%), or spending time in juvenile detention (18%). Comparing results from the interruptedenrollment and continuously-enrolled survey samples, young people who stopped going to school experienced these three types of deleterious events with significantly greater frequency than continuously-enrolled high school students. (See Section 4 of the tables in Appendix III for a full list of the experiences included among the survey questions.) To further understand the impact that toxic environments might have on dropping out, our research team analyzed the cumulative number of adverse life history experiences that interrupted-enrollment survey respondents reported. Only 10% did not experience any of the 12 listed challenges, compared to 28% of continuous-enrollment respondents. Among interrupted-enrollment respondents, 66% experienced from three to 12 of these adverse events, with almost one-quarter experiencing at least six of them. The number of young people who reported that they experienced multiple events like abuse, homelessness, suspension / expulsion, and involvement with juvenile justice reinforces the findings related both to toxic environments and to clustering. 21 In 14 of the 16 communities. 17

18 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDINGS 2 FREQUENCY OF EVENTS Interrupted vs. Continuous Experience of Adverse Events NUMBER OF ADVERSE EVENTS Interrupted Continuous Exposure to toxic environments can lead to toxic stress. Toxic stress has been found to have substantial, detrimental effects on the brain architecture of young children, the health and wellness of children and youth, and the ability of children and youth to effectively cope with future stressful events. The disruption of the developing brain, even into adolescence, can have life-long effects on learning if no intervention occurs, and it increases the probability of engaging in multiple risky behaviors. 22 What may result are chronically stressed youth who then make impulsive or otherwise compromised decisions. In short, both the qualitative and quantitative analyses, as well as existing research studies, support this finding about toxic environments. Below we explore how the research illuminates specific types of toxicity that young people described to us or that we saw in the survey data, including: family violence and abuse, school safety, neighborhood violence, family health challenges, and unsupportive or unresponsive school policies. Violence at Home: Family Violence and Abuse Many of the group interview participants could not depend on home as a safe or stable place. Violence in the home included neglect and physical abuse. Often, older youth bore the brunt of family violence for the sake of their younger siblings. For example: My mom would get drunk so I would take my little brothers outside. When she woke up, she would beat me up for taking them out. But it was whatever It was worth it for them. Janis Other interview participants indicated that abuse at home was so pervasive that they could no longer engage productively in life outside the home. Janis s story echoed what our team heard in other cities. In fact, many young people recounted exposure to extreme levels of violence giving voice to the survey results 23 we saw related to life events affecting youth who stop going to school. All teens, regardless of socioeconomics or family background, may act impulsively. But looking at the differences in the number of adverse experiences reported by interrupted-enrollment and continuous-enrollment survey respondents points to the greater risks for the interrupted-enrollment group. 22 Garner, A. S., Shonkoff, J. P., Siegel, B. S., Dobbins, M.I., Earls, M.F., McGuinn, L., & Wood, D. L. (2012). Early childhood adversity, toxic stress, and the role of the pediatrician: Translating developmental science into lifelong health. Pediatrics, 129 (1), Nearly 1 in 5 interrupted-enrollment youth reported being physically or emotionally abused by a parent; and nearly one-third reported being physically or emotionally abused by someone else (see Appendix III, Tables 24 and 40). 18

19 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDINGS 2 Violence at home appears to influence the choices nongraduates made about disengaging from school. Interviewees also had provocative, introspective insights into the impact of these traumatic events. One young person summarized the effects this way: Being exposed to that [abuse that a parent calls tough love ], think of the cycle of social developments and how that can imprint on somebody and even dealing with others you have this distorted concept of what love is and people become sadistic. Kenny A participant who lived in multiple foster homes and survived a violent event reflects: And after that I got shot, I got shot in my leg, and they started sending me homework from school and I was doin it and all of a sudden I started drinking and I got a little bit depressed, and just tired of it, you know, I don t want to do it no more, and I just quit. Paul Violence at home appears to influence the choices nongraduates made about disengaging from school. For example, some young people reported that they chose to stop going to school because they needed to protect and support themselves and their family. Janis s story is one example. Within the young people s stories, we heard not only anger and anguish, but also self-awareness, self-acceptance, caring for others, resilience, and strength. This does not minimize the negative choices many of the young people reported making, which included using and selling drugs, harming others, and damaging property. However, the research leads us to see illegal activity, risky or unsupportive peer relationships, and leaving high school as choices made in contexts that research indicates can compromise adolescent brain development and therefore decision-making. Other research suggests that such behavior is related to an accumulation of risk factors, 24 and that long exposure to high-risk situations can damage a person s ability to regulate stress. 25 Thus, evidence suggests that the environments and relationships around the young people in both the group interviews and the survey sample are significantly influencing these choices. Viewed another way, some of these choices may simply be seen as adaptations to the young people s environments. Violence at School: School Safety Many of the group interview participants could not depend on home as a safe or stable place. Violence in the home included neglect and physical abuse. Often, older youth bore the brunt of family violence for the sake of their younger siblings. For example: School often did not provide a haven from violent home environments. Young people described school both the grounds and the building as unsafe in 13 out of the 16 interview communities. We heard stories about both overt threats and generally feeling unsafe. In one participant s words: People would be outside of the school waiting for us with guns, so I was forced to bring my gun to school. Lance A participant in another city eloquently describes the emotional impact of this kind of environment: I just didn t like school. It wasn t because I m dumb. I get sick just entering the building. I feel like I m in prison. It s how the school was set up. They had iron bars like [the area prison]. Cuz back then [the prison] was like mad gangster, with gangbangers and whatever Cameras everywhere. I don t feel safe. Jeff 24 Breyere, E., & Garbarino, J. (2011). The developmental impact of community violence. Juvenile justice: Advancing research, policy, and practice (pp ). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 25 Evans, G. W., & Kim, P. (2010). Multiple risk exposure as a potential explanatory mechanism for the socioeconomic status health gradient. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1186, Evans, G. W., & Kim, P. (2007). Childhood poverty and health: Cumulative risk exposure and stress dysregulation. Psychological Science, 18(1),

20 THEMES AND FINDINGS FINDINGS 2 For Jeff, leaving school represents a kind of self-protection removing himself from a place where I get sick just entering the building. This story emphasizes both the mental health impact of toxic environments, and the role school climate plays in students engagement or disengagement. Violence in the Neighborhood Group interview participants described witnessing violence in their neighborhoods as well. Marty, a young man in Philadelphia, was only eight years old when he witnessed his older cousin get shot in the head. Marty carried his cousin s lifeless body into the nearest convenience store to call for help. I just looked at him and blood started coming out of his eyes and started rolling to the back of his head and I was numb. Right there I probably lost everything I had. It was just enough, and I got tired. I was by myself and I kept going to school. Trying, trying, trying and then I came to my breaking point and I was like I don't want to do shit no more. I don't want to go to school, I don't want to say hi to nobody, I just want to die. My life is over. Marty Even in the face of extreme violence, Marty tries to persist at school. But he was by myself, and he just gave up not just on school but on himself and everyone around him. Marty s story is like many of those we heard from other nongraduates who experienced trauma. Stories related to young people s own mental health appeared in 11 out of 16 cities, and the violence that often contributes to poor health outcomes 26 was mentioned in 10 out of 16. Personal and Family Health Challenges Young people often found themselves in the role of caregiver or wage-earner not as a result of violence or neglect, but because a parent became ill. Group interview participants in 10 out of 16 cities mentioned family physical health as a factor. These circumstances collided with unresponsive school policies or a lack of support that forced a student to choose between school and home. My mom had a hernia and needed an operation to get rid of it... I went to go ask if I could get a month off school to help out with my mom and I was told that if I left to help my mom that I would have to stay for two more years in school and I was already on my last year so I just dropped out. Amy This quote depicts another example of a young person who makes a short-term decision that competes with longerterm educational goals. On the surface, Amy s desire to help out at home conflicted with expectations and policies at school, and her response is I just dropped out. 26 Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, S. W., & Earls, F. (1997). Neighborhoods and violent crime: A multilevel study of collective efficacy. Science, 277, Anderson, E. (1999). The code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W.W. Norton. Foster, H., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2012). Neighborhood, family and individual influences on school physical victimization. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. doi: 20

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